Farmers will be paid to provide walkers with better access to their land and preserve cultural heritage, the Government will announce on Thursday, as it promises “a new chapter” for England’s national parks.

As part of a shake-up of the way England’s natural beauty spots are managed, the Environment Secretary will outline plans for extending protections across the landscape.

Two new areas of outstanding beauty will be considered for creation in the Yorkshire Wolds and Cheshire Sandstone Ridge, the first in 25 years, and existing protected areas in the Surrey Hills and the Chilterns extended as part of pledges to safeguard England’s landscapes.

The four areas have the potential to deliver more than 40 per cent of the land required to meet commitments to protect 30 per cent of our land by 2030, the Government said.

But while the Government said it was delivering on its manifesto commitments to create new protected landscapes, it was met with criticism from green groups who said designations in existing areas failed to provide protection from pressures of housing, intensive farming and forestry.

Environment Secretary George Eustice will outline plans for a £20m initial annual fund for farmers in national parks and AONBs to improve public access to their land or create additional car parking spaces, and make improvements such as creating ponds or wetlands or caring for historic features.

Reigate Hill in the Surrey Hills

Credit: PA

Writing for the Telegraph below, Mr Eustice said the pandemic had emphasised that “a connection with nature contributes to well-being and improved mental health, and our protected landscapes have never been more cherished.”

He added: “Our protected landscapes represent some of the most stunning and diverse landscapes in the country. We have an opportunity to create a new chapter for them, while also protecting and enhancing our Green Belt.”

There are currently 46 AONB in England, which are protected by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW Act), which says relevant authorities must consider the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty in any decisions over the land.

Protected areas

The move comes in response to a landmark independent review commissioned by the government and led by Julian Glover which called for radical change to enhance the country’s protected areas.

Some 75 per cent of areas with the highest level of protection within designated areas are considered to be in unfavourable condition.

“This shows neither the urgency nor the vision that is patently needed,” the RSPB’s director of England, Emma Marsh said.

Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity said: “We know that not all of the land within existing National Parks and AONBs is effectively managed for nature. Our evidence also shows that a developer led planning system with centralised housing targets has driven up pressure on these nationally important areas, particularly in the South.”

The Government is under pressure over its proposed planning reforms which critics say will make it harder for local residents to object to new developments.

The pledge to protect 30 per cent of the UK’s land by 2030 has now been matched by all of the members of the G7, and is one of the Government’s leading aims for the Cop26 international climate summit.

“The creation of new AONBs is excellent, but it must be accompanied by stronger duties and resources for environmental improvement to bring the landscapes to life with nature,” Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said.

“These designations may afford some protection from harm, but much more ambition is needed to fill our protected landscapes with wildlife and ensure they play their part in averting climate change.”

Responding to the announcement, Mr Glover said:  “Our national landscapes are the soul of England, beautiful, much-loved, and there for all of us, but they are also under pressure. We need to do a lot more for nature and more for people, too. Our report set out a plan for a brighter, greener future and I’m delighted that words are now being followed by action.”

We’ll protect England’s most iconic landscapes

by George Eustice, Environment Secretary

The events of the last year have led people to appreciate the difference that spending time outside, amongst nature, makes to our lives. We know that a connection with nature contributes to well-being and improved mental health, and our protected landscapes have never been more cherished.

From Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty around the coast of Cornwall, to Dartmoor and the Lake District National Parks, we are spoilt for choice. But we can and must go further. If everyone had access to sufficient green space, the benefits associated with increased physical activity could save our health system £2.1bn a year. That is why we are committing to improve people’s access to nature, create new protected landscapes and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.

On Thursday I’ll be setting out new plans to support nature recovery within our protected landscapes, following the Independent Landscapes Review carried out by Julian Glover.  we are launching a new Farming in Protected Landscapes Programme to help farmers make improvements to the natural environment and increase public access on their land. This is a key component of our ambitious programme of agricultural reform, and will provide funding for one-off projects which could include things like creating ponds or other wetland to help protect wildlife and providing new or improved facilities to support enhanced public access in our Protected Landscapes.

The East Yorkshire Wolds

Credit: ISTOCK

Our plans will also include a renewed drive to support nature recovery within our protected landscapes, working hand in hand with local authorities and the teams operating National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We will be consulting on proposals later this year that seek to bring our family of protected landscapes closer together to create more strategic oversight whilst maintaining vital local management and planning functions, where plans will be developed in partnership with a broad range of stakeholders, including National Park Authorities and local authorities.

A key part of what we are seeking to do is the proposal to develop more National Nature Reserves within National Parks. National Nature Reserves have been designated by Natural England since the 1950s.  Unlike some other types of designations they are relatively simple to establish with willing landowners. We want to work with landowners using funds from our future agriculture policy to make space for nature and to incentivise the creation of more National Nature Reserves to help nature’s recovery.

Two of our most iconic landscapes will become candidates for new Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, alongside extensions to the Surrey Hills and Chilterns protected landscapes. The Yorkshire Wolds and the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge have been put forward to be recognised as protected areas, which would allow them to benefit from enhanced protections.

The creation of new protected landscapes has the potential to deliver a significant part of our commitment to protect 30 per cent of our land by 2030. This is an area where we are taking the lead internationally – under our leadership, all G7 members have signed up to this target.

Our protected landscapes represent some of the most stunning and diverse landscapes in the country. We have an opportunity to create a new chapter for them, while also protecting and enhancing our Green Belt. In doing so we will go a long way in contributing to our commitments on nature recovery and biodiversity, whilst improving public access and achieving better outcomes for people across the country as we build back greener.